BBC100: The 100 Most-Broadcast BBC Programmes Of All Time (95-91)

In which an instantly successful programme takes a sixteen-year run-up to a second series, and a crime drama becomes a BBC staple due to people not liking football enough.

Firstly, huge thanks to everyone who’d shared word of this project on Twitter. Any time I’ve previously embarked any large data-based article, it always came with the suspicion it’d end with a half-dozen retweets and a two-figure view count. This one has massively gone in the opposite direction, and I’ve never been more glad to be wrong.

Secondly, I welcome any and all feedback on this project. As mentioned previously, all the data therein is as accurate as I’m able to glean, but there definitely will be missed episodes somewhere along the way. If you’re able to help remedy any errors, please let me know in the comments box or on The Twitter.

Okay, that’s it. On with the next part of the list. Which eagle-eyed readers may notice is lacking the quote I gave as a teaser in the first update. Because I found another massive clutch of episodes of a particular programme using a very slightly different name, which shoved it about thirty places up the chart. But, at least that’s one future entry I’ve already written.

Hey, the very sense I’m flinging this all together in a disorganised way is what really gives this site a raw energy. That’s what I like to think, anyway. Here comes the next dollop of data.

95: Sportsnight

(Shown 934 times, 1968-1997)

The days when the BBC had a rich sporting portfolio to pick from, eh?

The successor to Sportsview (1954-68), the BBC’s first regular midweek sports roundup, Sportsnight (initially suffixed ‘With Coleman’) arrived in September 1968 and originally aired on Thursday nights. That feels an epoch away from any sporting action taking place on a Tuesday of the same week, but at a time without Ceefax, much less non-stop live action on Sky or BT Sports, waiting seemed less of an ordeal. By 1973, Wednesday nights were now home to Sportsnight, meaning the wait between final whistle and running VT on those midweek international matches or FA Cup replays was the time it took someone to rush the recording to the studio.

Not that football was necessarily the main draw. That first Wednesday night episode focused primarily on The Leading Show Jumper of the Year Competition, Fuji’s rugby union tour of Britain and Boxing. The first set of football highlights came the following week, with England U23 taking on their West German counterparts in Filbert Street.

While primarily a highlights programme, Sportsnight would occasionally broadcast live events if they’d happened to be taking place at the time, such as boxing, darts or greyhound racing (particularly the annual TV Trophy for the latter). But later, football would almost always receive top billing, for much of the audience the only way to experience any of their team’s action if they’d not been standing under the floodlights themselves. Indeed, those who had been on the terraces would often hope to make it home in time to catch footage of any incidents only half-glimpsed, or blocked by a taller spectator in front of them. If nothing else, anyone who’d been at Selhurst Park on 25 January 1995 will surely attest to that.

Sportsnight’s stranglehold on midweek BBC Sport was such that any primetime sporting action, such as live coverage of UEFA cup competitions (football seemingly the sole remit of the show by this point), would go out under the Sportsnight Special banner (though Grandstand’s branding would still be applied to any live World Cup finals matches). And that’s how the brand ultimately went out for the last time, 14 May 1997 seeing a Sportsnight Special of the Barcelona-PSG Cup Winners’ Cup final. Bobby Robson was Barca manager at the time, which hopefully stopped at least a few “But there aren’t even any British teams playing!” letters to Points Of View. After that point, any live football would find affixed to the Match of the Day Live branding.

94: Fimbles

(Shown 937 times, 2002-2010)

As if to heavily underline the sheer volume of episodes you need to produce if you want a daily slot on pre-school TV (Bagpuss wouldn’t get away with only ever making about three episodes in this day and age), Fimbles ran from September 2002 to September 2004, and in that time clocked up 200 episodes. Two hundred! Even thinking about the person who typed up the end credit text for all those episodes is quite tiring. Still, the antics of Fimbo, Flurrie and Baby Pom proved popular enough, with the programme running on CBeebies for almost the entirety of the channel’s first decade, making the nascent channel’s weekly BARB top ten on 136 occasions. And it didn’t fare too badly on the main BBC channels either, becoming a fixture on BBC2 for the best part of a decade.

93: Rugby Special

(Shown 976 times, 1966-2005)

Rugby. Sweat. Mud. Blood. Thunder. The North. Someone getting their ear torn off in a scrum. All soundtracked by Paddy Kingsland’s proto-electropop ‘Spinball’. So utterly marvellous it almost feels like a mistake. It certainly makes you wonder if there’s a pre-schools programme in the BBC archive that unexpectedly found itself with a theme by Dumpy’s Rusty Nuts.

While I’m not sure how ‘special’ a programme can be after it’s aired nearly a thousand editions, but Rugby Special has certainly been doing something right. The eggball-lovers’ answer to Match of the Day started on New Year’s Day 1966 with Keith Macklin introducing highlights of, and here’s a reason why rugby fixtures can often sound so interesting, “England versus The Rest”. Look, here’s the original Radio Times listing for it:

Future presenters of the programme would include David Vine, Chris Rea (not that one), Bill Beaumont and John Inverdale. It was a format that would become a fixture of the weekend schedules until the early years of the new millennium.

Not that this was the first time rugby union had been broadcast on the BBC, of course. It was usually listed under the more uncompromising branding of ‘Rugby Union Football’ or “Floodlit Rugby League”, the latter debuting on BBC-2 on 5 October 1965. I’d really like to know what the viewing figures for the first few episodes of Floodlit Rugby League were, given that BBC-2 didn’t even launch in Northern England (the hub of all things Rugby League) until the last day of October 1965. Though, in fairness, it did make it into the BBC Trade Test Transmissions for the channel up north. Much to the relief of those with UHF sets in Swinton and Oldham, I’m sure. 

Rugby Special would quickly go on to be a weekend mainstay for BBC-2, offering an antidote to the glittering BBC-1 Saturday evening fare for the next ten years. From September 1976, it made the switch to Sunday afternoons, starting with the Third Test match between South Africa and New Zealand. I’m too classy to make a joke about apartheid South Africa and the All-Blacks, you’ll notice. That was followed a week later by a much more parochial affair, with the first domestic match of the season, West of Scotland v Gosforth.

By May 1997, much of the rights to domestic rugby had been bought up by the unlikely triumvirate of BSkyB, HTV and S4C (Heineken Cup and England home tests to the former, Welsh domestic matches to the latter two), putting the Rugby Special branding on hiatus. For the next few years, live rugby broadcasts continued on the Corporation as before, most notably the Five Nations, as did the occasional documentary on the sport, such as October 1997’s ‘The Rugby Club’, peeking behind the scenes at Bath Rugby Club as it transitioned into a professional outfit, but as far as actual highlights of club rugby, you’d need to look elsewhere. 

In 2002, Rugby Special returned, albeit in a different format. Rugby highlights had become the preserve of the now-regular Sunday Grandstand, meaning Rugby Special became a much more magazine-based programme, airing in a late-night Thursday slot, tackling issues such as the now-professional game’s injury crisis, or providing coverage of Bill McLaren’s retirement dinner at the Dorchester. That approach turned out to have been short-lived, and by May 2003 Rugby Special resumed operations as a highlights show, putting out action from the Rugby Premiership. The branding finally faded from view in 2005, when the BBC reverted to referring its various rugby-based offerings as the more modest ‘Rugby Union’ and ‘Rugby League’. It seemed that after 39 years on our screens Rugby was, in the eyes of Them Upstairs, no longer quite as Special.

92: For The Children

(Shown 983 times, 1937-1952)

In the history of television, a number of programmes have acted as kingmaker for acts who would go on to become massive. The most obvious avenue for stardom would be talent shows, such as ATV’s New Faces (Marti Caine, Roger de Courcey, Lenny Henry), the BBC’s Opportunity Knocks (Paul Daniels, Les Dawson, Barry and Paul Elliott), or Sky One’s Sky Star Search (SUB FILL IN LATER). But British television’s first ever household name got his big break on this unassuming little programme, right from the infancy of the medium.

While For the Children first appeared as a regular series in 1946, it actually first appeared nine years earlier, with a pair of irregularly scheduled storytime sessions going out on Saturday afternoons in March and May of 1937. From the information available, it seems akin to an even-more-lo-fi Jackanory, the first episode a telling of “George Queen’s Pantomime Goose” (a broadcast which has an IMDB page despite no information other than the title being available), the second inviting Danish writer and actor Paul Leyssac to read a pair of Hans Christian Andersen stories. A simple premise, but given the BBC had only stopped using the Baird standard a month before that first episode, let’s not get carried away here.

From 1946 onwards, the remit seems to have expanded into something offering a bit more variety to the children of post-blitz London. Early episodes offered “a demonstration organised by the Camping Club of Great Britain and Ireland”, “Commander A. B. Campbell opens a sea chest and shows its treasures to the children”, “Model steam and power boats cruise on the lake at Alexandra Palace” and “Commander A. B. Campbell opens his sea chest again. This time the treasures come from Canada.”

At least going by the RT archive listings, a few different presenters shepherded this flock of fancies onto British screens, but the most commonly seen were actress, dancer and songwriter Annette Mills and puppeteer Ann Hogarth. A growing number of episodes featured the Hogarth Puppet Circus (part of the globe-trotting Hogarth Puppets touring company ran by Hogarth and her husband), and it didn’t take long for one puppet in particular to capture the imagination of the viewing thousands.

Not that one.

20 October 1946 saw the first appearance of Muffin the Mule alongside Annette Mills, but there was no major fanfare. The RT listing for that episode merely states “Annette Mills and friends at the piano”, and by the following episode it was the turn of “Model aeroplanes demonstrated and flown by Squadron-Leader P. H. Hunt” to take top billing. For the next few months, Muffin would only be an occasional treat for the children. That would soon change.

By the summer of 1947 there was still room for other turns (4 May 1947: “Marjorie Clarke shows how to make papier mache puppet dolls and dress them.” – granted: rationing, but also: brr), but it was Annette Mills and Ann Hogarth who featured for the majority of episodes. Indeed, for at least a week in July 1947, a billing for Muffin usurped the For the Children spot in the Radio Times’ TV supplement.

Ultimately, the transition of For the Children from a whimsical hotchpotch of youth-friendly hobbies into a more character-based affair would spell the end of the strand in January 1952. Despite only being a regular series for a few years, the broadcast history below shows how much it did for the concept of Television For Children – going from an occasional treat appearing on a handful of term-time Sundays to a programme title used multiple times per day (appearing 633 times over the course of 1951). Given that frequency, Muffin was just one name amongst many on the programme, meaning it would be harder for children to prepare viewing for their favourites.

Watch With Mother, the new umbrella strand for children’s programming, allowed individual programmes to go out under their own billing, which was certainly more useful to audiences than everything going out under just the one name. And Muffin the Mule would go on to be a large part of Watch With Mother’s success.

Muffin would also go on to entertain a new generation of TV tiddlers in 2005, with a 25-episode animated series made for CBeebies, but which also clocked up 41 appearances on BBC Two between September 2005 and January 2006. That didn’t turn out to have quite the same impact as the original, but there’s another way in which Muffin The Mule proved to be a TV trailblazer. Following his last BBC outing in 1955 (coinciding with the death of Annette Mills), Muffin would be one of the first TV stars to make a big money* move from Auntie to ITV, appearing on the other side from 1956 to 1957.

(*I assume. Maybe he was paid in straw.)

How different might the history of Children’s Television have been had the breakout star been Commander A. B. Campbell And His Sea Chest, eh?

91: Postman Pat

(Shown 998 times, 1981-2012)

Henry Rollins once said “I believe that one defines oneself by reinvention. To not be like your parents. To not be like your friends. To be yourself.” Now, I’ve no idea about the context of that particular utterance, but I feel at least 85% sure he’s talking about Postman Pat. And that’s because dedicated country postman Pat Clifton is very much capable of reinventing himself every few years, whilst remaining very much true to himself throughout.

In Pat’s initial outing – a single series of just thirteen episodes, first airing between September 1981 and September 1982 – Pat seems to find all the companionship he needs in his job and his black and white cat (also his little van). He’s serving his community, he likes the people he meets, and he helps anyone in need, no matter how inconvenient it might be. No wonder Pat feels he’s a very happy man.

By the time of his second series in 1997 – not a typo, that’s a sixteen year gap – we find that Pat has settled into life as a family man, but that hasn’t dampened his dedication to serving his neighbourhood one jot. Then, by 2008, we find that Pat has been promoted to Head of the Special Delivery Service, yet his devotion to delivery remains undimmed. It’s practically Michael Apted’s 7-Up for under-eights.

One of the most remarkable things about Postman Pat (the series rather than the man) is how much of a cultural totem it very quickly became. Only ever airing in a lunchtime weekday slot until 1985, it still somehow seeped into the national consciousness, meaning everybody seemed to know the theme tune and the premise of the series, even if they’d always be at school or work when it’s on. As a child, I recall much debate in the Radio Times letters page about whether the lyrics referred to his black and white cat, or his black and white hat. Now, that’s a conundrum easily resolved by, well, looking at his hat, but it does show how much the series played on the minds of the public.

And Pat knows. He observes the public. From afar.

That also explains why each of the thirteen episodes were held in such warm regard. It took until 1991 for a fourteenth episode of Postman Pat to be made, and even that was a one-off Christmas Day special where Pat got on a bus. Up to that point, the preceding thirteen episodes of Pat had been broadcast a total of 211 times. And by the time the second series proper debuted in April 1997, those episodes had registered a total of 274 showings. And yes, Bagpuss famously only ever had 13 episodes, but that’s way down in 342nd place on this list.

Since 2003, at which point production of the series had moved to Cosgrove-Hall Films, things were a lot more prolific. A lot more – by the time of the final episode (thus far) in 2017, a total of 184 episodes have been produced. That’s all the more impressive given they’ve stayed with a stop-motion process throughout (save for the Postman Pat film, but that’s not relevant here, or just in general. It ain’t good), leaving churn-em-out CGI production line episodes to the likes of Fireman Sam. And despite it being ten whole years since Pat has appeared on the main BBC channels (largely along with all children’s programming), it remains a regular on CBeebies. 

 In summary, then: Postman Pat certainly delivered.

 I’m not even sorry.

And there we go, another chunk sliced off the hundred and served on a plate. Come back in a few days for numbers ninety to eighty-six.

5 responses to “BBC100: The 100 Most-Broadcast BBC Programmes Of All Time (95-91)”

    • Indeed so, generally closing down the channel on the moonlit side of Newsnight. Just checked my list (partly to see if that run of broadcasts was included – it was), and it’s quite a run. Between July and September 1981, a total of 36 L&H films shown in late night slots, most weeknights plus the occasional Sunday. Would love to see scheduling like that now (mainly so the majority of the Stan and Ollie back catalogue would be on iPlayer).


      • Now updated, credit given accordingly. Also updated/corrected the bit about The Newcomers someone pointed out in your thread about the blog on Roobarb’s. So, all good EXCEPT for the Zetaboards password bot refusing to deliver both the password reset for my old Roobarbs account, AND the confirmation email to the new account I’ve tried to set up on there, so I can’t respond to the thread itself. Bah.


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: